Emotions in organizational processes: Do they matter?

Since the beginning of the recent crisis, many third sector organizations have been going through a phase of profound changes. In particular, uncertainty and ambiguity generated by a suddenly unintelligible environment have restricted the actors’ ability to interpret input coming from the outside and generated fear of the future as well as internal stress. In this context decision-making processes appear to be deeply affected. Standard economic and sociological theories are permeated by the idea that individuals and groups act rationally when they take optimal decisions, i.e. decisions that take advantage of all the available information and produce maximal benefits. This approach conceives information as something objective and rationality as the instrument yielding a perfect understanding of the world, thus ruling out the importance of the emotional component in decision-making. In our opinion, the mainstream conception of rationality, albeit predominant, is not the only one worthy of consideration. In particular, we support the idea proposed by Bateson (1979) that information is subjective because people create it based on their perceptions. Moreover, we take inspiration from the studies of neurobiologist Damasio and consider individual rational behaviour from a different perspective. Damasio (1994) concludes that an individual’s rationality can be jeopardized by the lack of an adequately developed emotional dimension. The starting point of our study is the assumption that the above findings also apply to organizations. In particular, we ask whether by adequately taking into account the emotional dimension they could better deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.

My current PhD research is based on a comparison of the situation of the non-profit services sector in two southern European countries: Italy and Spain. The macro-context in the two countries is similar insofar that both have been facing a difficult situation since their governments started cutting funding as a consequence of austerity policies. In Italy we are currently evaluating the merger between two cooperatives. To this end we rely on interviews and focus groups that address the internal dynamics of the organizations and the members’ reactions to the merging process. The two Italian cooperatives that we are studying used to operate independently on the same territory and hence used to compete for the same public projects and funds. Due to budget cuts, however, they have started working together on joint projects. After collaborating for a relatively long time, the two cooperatives started an experimental phase to evaluate the possibility of merging. During this time they temporarily integrated some units to work on specific projects and opened a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of being a unique entity. The joint work proved to be a success however collaborating was not always easy. The existence of information asymmetries between the parts created at times fear of manipulations and a lack of trust. There is an on-going debate among the workers about these emotions, their causes and possible consequences in the attempt to understand these feelings and prevent them from interfering with the joint activity.

In Spain we are studying a different situation. We are working with two non-profit organizations that have undergone structural changes due to the economic crisis. In both cases the workers are trying to diversify their portfolio of projects and to win projects beyond their original mission, in order to have more opportunities to survive. So far we have been confronted with a situation in which the information and decisions flow only from the top to the bottom of the organizational hierarchy. As a consequence some workers think that the internal processes are not transparent, hence they experience fear that in turn jeopardizes the effectiveness of their work. Our hypothesis is that when people do not have the possibility to express emotions, when rough times come, they stop acting as a group and further contribute to the decline of the organizations.

Main References

Bateson G. (1979), Mind and Nature. A necessary unit, Chandler Publishing Company.

Damasio A.R. (1994), Decartes’ Error. Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain © Antonio Damasio.

Weick K.E. (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage Pub., Thousand Oaks.


EJEB_FotoGColombiniGiulia Colombini is currently a Ph.D. student in Political Science and teaching assistant in Social Policy at the Department of political science of the University of Pisa. She is also a member of the department’s laboratory of Research on Inclusion and Social Development. Her research focuses on the role of emotions in shaping participatory processes and decision making in non-profit organizations. An important part of her work involves field studies; this gives her the opportunity to work side by side with Italian and Spanish social cooperatives and to collaborate with universities in both countries. Her background is in Communication studies, she earned a M.Sc. in Communication Systems and Projects from the University of Pisa. Email: giulia.colombini@for.unipi.it


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